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The power and the gory: Why women love the new wave of violent TV

Bloody, violent - and loved by women. Hurray for the TV defying gender stereotypes

When you think about “women’s television” what comes to mind? The Cosmopolitan-swilling foursome at the heart of Sex and the City? Or more recently Lena Dunham’s confused Girls? Well, how about Hannibal? The gruesome origin story of everyone’s favourite Chianti-swilling serial killer, it’s a gory, stylishly-shot horror series, featuring bodies slowly decomposing under mushrooms, corpses turned into angels and murder victims transformed into musical instruments. It is also a show that almost certainly owes its continued survival to women.

In the US, despite critical acclaim, Hannibal launched weakly but has taken off in its second season, with a 22 per cent leap in viewing figures in the last month, and has just been renewed for a third. And that’s largely a result of its passionate, ever-increasing female fanbase – it does particularly well with women under 30 – who have dubbed themselves “Fannibals” and dominate Twitter and Tumblr with a proliferation of witty memes and ever-so-slightly demented sites celebrating the central relationship between emotionally disturbed FBI profiler Will Graham and the charming yet murderous Dr Lecter.

In the UK, meanwhile, it airs on Sky Living, a channel whose core audience is women. Sky Living’s director Antonia Hurford-Jones admits she was surprised by the feedback when she audience-tested it. “ I showed it to a few groups of people – all the men said ‘oh it’s way too gory’ but the women said ‘it’s brilliant, I love it’. It would appear women like gore, they like to be a little bit freaked out.”

Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator, was similarly taken aback when he realised the extent of its female following: “I probably did expect it to be more of a male thing but I think partially what has happened is that I’m a gay man who wrote a show that’s partially about male heterosexual friendship because it’s always fascinated me. I do think there’s a distinctly male approach to friendship that I’m on the outside of as a gay man and I wonder if female viewers respond in the same way, that is that they enjoy watching a Hannibal who isn’t just a killer but has relationships and friendships.”

Nor is Hannibal alone in confounding stereotypes with its viewing base. Despite an early New York Times review dismissing HBO’s Game of Thrones as “boy fiction”, it has a passionate female audience, many of whom are long-standing fans of George R R Martin’s equally blood-soaked books. When the BBC’s Ripper Street was saved post-cancellation, the fans celebrating on social media were largely women. Sci-fi drama Orphan Black’s ratings are driven by women, while Sherlock and Doctor Who have celebrated female followings. All these programmes exist within genres that have traditionally been viewed as male. So what is happening? Could it be that, contrary to the beliefs of marketing directors, women enjoy watching all manner of shows from fantasy to crime dramas, from sci-fi to horror?

Thankfully, despite ITV’s bizarre recent decision to launch the “female-focused” ITV-Be, whose viewers will apparently be fed a diet of reality and lifestyle shows, the industry is moving away from the idea that women are interested only in shows about sex and shopping – and, by the same token, that men are interested only in testosterone-heavy drama. The biggest network dramas in the US currently are political thriller Scandal and legal drama The Good Wife: both female-led, they are set in the higher echelons of power and draw as many male viewers as female. Meanwhile in the UK the second series of gritty cop drama Line of Duty became a breakout hit because of, rather than despite, the strong female role at its centre.

Small wonder then that Hurford-Jones has spent the 18 months since she took over at Sky Living “de-pinking” the channel and has consistently begged production companies not to send her “niche, girly ideas”. “There was a bit of an old-fashioned view when I arrived about what women wanted to watch,” she says. “A lot of shows about dieting and dating and I just felt you can get that sort of thing brilliantly in a magazine and we should concentrate elsewhere.  When I’m looking at shows I don’t think ‘what will women want?’ so much as ‘what a great idea’. All the shows we’ve brought in - The Blacklist, Hannibal, Elementary, Dracula - have strong relationships at their core. That’s what our audience responds to.”

In the cases of Game of Thrones and Hannibal, what’s gratifying is the way that big US dramas, of whatever genre, are now serving up a host of well-written female characters as standard. In the former, the sheer range of female types is impressive, from the manipulative Queen Regent Cersei to steadfast warrior Brienne. And in the latter, though the central relationship is between Graham and Lecter, Fuller has pulled off some clever switches on author Thomas Harris’s male-dominated world – psychologist Dr Alan Bloom has become Alana and tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds has transformed into Fredricka “Freddie” Lounds – while adding complex new female characters at the same time. Fuller’s show is also filled with women communicating with other women and the murders happen to both sexes, rather than there being an endless procession of dead, naked girls. Set against that, the recent first series of True Detective was beautifully made but so pulsating with machismo – and filled with female corpses – that it was almost impossible for a female viewer to find a way in; duly, it received much heat for its perceived “woman problem”.

That’s not to say that even shows with fantastic female characters can’t still pose problems for female audiences: see Game of Thrones’ badly misjudged recent sex scene between Cersei and her brother Jaime, which was seen by the creators as consensual and most viewers as rape. However, Fuller is vocal about his refusal to include sexual violence towards women in Hannibal. “I personally can’t derive entertainment from a rape storyline. I don’t think it should be fetishised.”

And that perhaps remains the key to Hannibal’s female-driven success: women may quite like a bit of blood and gore but we like it even more when it’s backed up by a female-friendly eye. The makers of Hannibal consider their female viewers without patronising them. Here’s hoping more shows are swift to follow their lead. 

‘Hannibal’ is on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 10pm